Israel plans 261 settler homes deep in West Bank

Israel on Wednesday moved forward with plans for 261 new homes in two settlements located deep in the occupied West Bank, the Peace Now settlement watchdog said.

It was the fifth such move in just over two weeks and raised to 2,791 the number of new settler homes announced since the start of the year, threatening to derail faltering US-brokered peace talks with the Palestinians.

The new plans include 256 housing units in Nofei Prat settlement, between east Jerusalem and Jericho, and another five in the sprawling Ariel settlement in the north, the group said.

"The addition of 256 housing units to the small, isolated settlement of Nofei Prat dramatically changes the settlement, expanding its size and population significantly. In fact, these planned units will nearly triple the size of Nofei Prat," Peace Now said in a statement.

Construction would be allowed to start "without further political approval or public awareness," it added.

Israel's rapid settlement expansion has angered Palestinian negotiators and drawn condemnation from the international community, threatening peace talks that US Secretary of State John Kerry kick-started in July.

"Every day that Kerry isn't in the region, the government announces construction of new settlements," Peace Now spokesman Lior Amihai told AFP.

Kerry has visited the region 10 times since March to coax the two sides towards a final peace agreement, but the talks continue to falter ahead of an agreed April deadline.

Israel moved ahead on Tuesday with plans for 381 homes for West Bank settlers, prompting Palestinian charges it was more interested in building settlements than reaching a peace agreement.

It also pushed ahead with plans for a second visitors' centre at an archaeological site in Silwan, a densely-populated Arab neighbourhood of east Jerusalem, Peace Now said.

And on January 6, Israel approved plans for 272 new homes in various West Bank settlements. Four days later, it unveiled plans for more than 1,877 new units, some in annexed Arab east Jerusalem.

Israel and the Palestinians embarked on nine months of direct negotiations in late July at the urging of Kerry.

But over the past six months, Israel has not slowed its construction on land the Palestinians want for a future state. The Palestinians have long viewed settlement construction as a major obstacle to resolving the decades-old conflict.

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